The Promotion of LGBT Rights as International Human Rights Norms: Explaining Brazil's Diplomatic Leadership

By Nogueira, Maria Beatriz Bonna | Global Governance, October-December 2017 | Go to article overview

The Promotion of LGBT Rights as International Human Rights Norms: Explaining Brazil's Diplomatic Leadership


Nogueira, Maria Beatriz Bonna, Global Governance


One of the greatest contemporary challenges in human rights norm making is defining the protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as an international standard. In an unusually polarized structure, the approval of a few resolutions on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, and transgender persons has engendered intense negotiation within international organizations, which has been largely promoted by Brazil. By expanding the analytical parameters of the literature on norm entrepreneurship to the study of foreign policy, the article analyzes Brazil's international leadership on LGBT rights, explaining the origins, motivations, and results of the country's proactive stance on the issue. KEYWORDS: human rights, LGBT rights, Brazilian foreign policy. 

A MESSAGE, POSTED BY THE BRAZILIAN MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS ON SOCIAL media, celebrated the decision of the US Supreme Court on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs honors all those who fight to defend the human rights of LGBT people. Brazil supports the promotion and the protection of such rights in all international forums, and understands that recognizing LGBT rights means applying the principle of equality to human rights practice and combating all forms of discrimination. (1) 

It also reaffirmed an international position advanced by Brazil for over a decade: that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons are international human rights norms. Even without having any domestic legislation on the issue, Brazil was the first country ever to propose an international normative text exclusively dedicated to LGBT rights and it has furthered its leading position as a LGBT norm promoter at global and regional levels over the years.

In this article, I analyze the leadership played by Brazilian diplomacy in promoting LGBT rights. After expanding the analytical parameters of the literature on norm entrepreneurship to the study of foreign policy, I examine Brazil's role as a norm entrepreneur within a conflicting international structure. I then uncover how the protection of LGBT rights originally became part of Brazilian foreign policy and identify the drivers behind its increasing salience as an issue of active norm promotion.

I present Brazil's LGBT rights leadership as a process of identity and interest formation constructed and strengthened over the past sixteen years. It began timidly due to the influence of the domestic LGBT movement over diplomats with a human rights background. It then evolved into a broader foreign policy agenda aimed at furthering Brazil's international prestige and self-image as a human rights promoter and, finally, it was given greater priority by the federal government as a response to domestic political disputes. This case also illustrates the important role of Global South states in advancing new international norms and principles.

Norm Promotion, Human Rights, and Foreign Policy

The study of norms is a central theme in the field of international relations, as it addresses questions about the nature of the international society as well as the actions and motivations of individual states. Questions such as "What are international norms?" "How do norms emerge?" and "How do norms influence state behavior?" have become increasingly relevant given the expansion of the international body of law and the growing evidence that state relations are not driven solely by material interests, (2) but also by moral purposes.

Understood as "standards of appropriate behavior defined collectively," (3) norms have been a constant feature of international society, as patterns of behavior have acquired a sense of "oughtness" that aims at both modifying state interests and constraining behavior. A central role is given to norm entrepreneurs in the process of international norm emergence. …

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